SHOW UP OR ELSE COURTS GET TOUGH: IGNORE ANOTHER JURY SUMMONS AND GET $1,500 FINE.
Los Angeles County court officials issued a stern warning Friday to prospective jurors: Show up for jury duty or face a $1,500 fine.
Needing more people to fill jury pools under the new one-day, one-trial system, the courts have started getting tough with scofflaws who ignore a jury summons.
As many as 120,000 sternly worded letters will be sent this year to those who did not reply when they were first called for jury service. The letters warn recipients that they will be fined up to $1,500 if they repeatedly ignore the notices.
``There used to be this attitude that nobody did anything about enforcing jury summonses,'' Van Nuys Superior Court Supervising Judge Paul Gutman said. ``As a consequence, it became pervasive that people who received them used to throw them in the trash. There was little follow-up.
``Now, because of the one-day, one trial system, we call 10,000 people every day into court. When you have to call 10,000 people, you can imagine how we have to increase responses to the summonses to have enough jurors.''
Under the one-day, one-trial system, people summoned for jury duty have to spend just one day at the courthouse unless they are selected for a jury panel. In the past, prospective jurors had to report to the courthouse or be on call for up to 10 days.
Just a few years ago, only 5 percent of those initially contacted showed up to serve jury duty in Los Angeles County - one of the lowest juror participation rates in the nation. In places such San Bernardino and Orange counties, about 25 percent of those who received summonses showed up for jury duty.
But as Los Angeles County's 38 courts have slowly switched to the new system, the number of people heeding their summons has jumped.
At the end of last year, 33 courts had switched to the new system; the remaining courthouses in downtown Los Angeles are expected to switch over by March.
Under the new process for those who do not respond to jury duty, the court randomly selects 120,000 people out of the approximately 4.6 million sent summonses.
Those 120,000 are sent notices via certified mail asking them once again to show up for jury duty. If they don't respond, they are sent three more letters - a notice of failure to appear, an order to show cause and finally an order to appear before a judge to explain why they did not respond.
``Even in that opportunity, you can say, I'll serve,'' court spokeswoman Jerrianne Hayslett said. ``You may be charged a couple of hundred dollars in court costs, but not the $1,500.
``But if you don't show up to court, you'll get up to the $1,500 fine. In all, you are given four opportunities to respond and say, I'll show up for jury duty.''
Neighboring Ventura County sends out about 5,000 jury summonses a week, and of those, about 1,000 to 1,200 people actually appear for service, said Peggy Yost, manager of jury services.
``We've been able to meet our jury trial needs,'' Yost said. ``It's gotten a lot more difficult with the one-day, one-trial system because we don't excuse people from service nearly as much now. Almost everyone has to appear.
``In the beginning, many people were angry that they had to show up, but people are used to it now,'' Yost said. ``The fact that they're there makes people settle cases more quickly.''
California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald M. George, who has advocated for higher juror pay and other court reforms, said the one-day, one-trial system is very successful and popular with jurors.
``It avoids having them sit around in uncomfortable settings for a couple of weeks, feeling their time is wasted,'' George said.
Once people in Los Angeles County understand the new system, George said, they will be less likely to throw their summonses in the trash.
``I think people will show up much more willingly,'' he said. ``I have seen reports that there is a much higher incidence of people showing up, and the satisfaction of people who do show up under the system is higher.''
At the Van Nuys courthouse, Gutman said the new one-trial system is working wonderfully.
``We have noted an increased response to the juror summons,'' Gutman said. ``I talk to 250 jurors every morning. The number of times they request excuses has dropped dramatically, not because I'm Elmer Gantry, but I'm able to persuade them of their need to serve the community.''
The movie ``Elmer Gantry,'' starring Burt Lancaster, depicted a bootstrap preacher who had a magical ability to bring people to religion.
But not everyone has been converted.
College student Lauren Gallo, 22, of Woodland Hills said she's been sent a couple of summonses, but she returned them, saying she couldn't serve because she is a full-time student and works part-time.
``If I were able to do it, I would, but I can't because I would miss school and work,'' she said. ``If it came down to it, I would have to do it. It's part of our civic duty.''
The most recent crackdown, which began in October, is not the first. The courts began the Sanction Summons program in 1996. In 1998, court officials reinstated the program, sending repeated notices to 34,000 jurors.
The one-trial system was mandated for all counties in January 2000.
At the Pomona courthouse, acting Supervising Judge George Genesta, who also oversees courthouses in El Monte and West Covina, said he sent out 10,000 notices in November to those who didn't heed their summons.
``We'll give them multiple opportunities to volunteer for jury service,'' he said. ``The point is not to punish people, but to encourage people to answer the summons and make arrangements to do their jury service. If they have a legitimate reason for not appearing, they can let us know and they can be excused.''
Staff Writer Sabrina Decker contributed to this report.